By Will Whitehurst / January 7th, 2016
First, I should mention the basics of Fatal Frame for the uninitiated, even though Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water adds a host of mechanics that are brand new to the series. At a base level, there are two major components to the gameplay: exploration and action. The only weapon you have to combat spiritual phenomena is the Camera Obscura. This is a special camera that eradicates ghosts by using special film that captures them. The series’ name comes from the Fatal Frame, a specially timed shot you make when a ghost gets close to you. The Camera Obscura is more powerful when a ghost is closer to it, and the Fatal Frame takes advantage of this. In short, the Fatal Frame series has its characters explore different landmarks, in this case, the shrines, forests and rivers present throughout Mt. Hikami, and purify them by eradicating ghosts with the Camera Obscura, as well as finding items like handwritten notes and other memorabilia that are central to the story.
Now, on to the new stuff, of which there is quite a bit. In keeping with the theme of water, Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water introduces a new meter, called the Wetness Gauge, that adds to the tension. The water around Mt. Hikami has a weird presence to it that makes characters more vulnerable to spiritual phenomena, and thus, vulnerability increases with the Wetness Gauge, and at a maximum level, it saps away HP. Also, when grabbing items, a ghost can lunge at your character’s hand all of a sudden. And along with the usual “take a picture of a ghost, deal your finishing blow with the Fatal Frame” aesthetic to the combat, the ghosts release small fragments that must be taken out as well.
Let’s be frank here: the Wii U GamePad does make a fantastic Camera Obscura. In spite of the occasionally finicky gyroscope and tricky aiming, especially when the game asks you to make certain shots that match (one in the third chapter is particularly frustrating), the GamePad really puts you in the midst of everything. While fans of the PS2 installments’ control style can select a similar scheme in the options menu, there’s a genuine sense of fun in rotating the GamePad around and waiting for the ghost to lunge at you in order to take a Fatal Frame, which acts as a particularly strong attack. As you progress through the game, you upgrade your Camera Obscura with new lenses and film types that take ghosts out effortlessly. When you play as Ren, you can even take multiple shots in a row if need be. But don’t waste your film – it gets hard to find.
The pacing and replay value of Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water make it worthwhile as well. The main story, which is split across 14 chapters, took me somewhere in the realm of 20 hours, and this was on Easy difficulty with few deaths. There are two other difficulties to choose from, although you unlock Nightmare (the series’ equivalent to Hard – and boy, it earns that title) after going through Normal. The promise of multiple endings – eight in all – adds to the replay value, too, as does a postgame bonus chapter featuring Ayane from the Dead or Alive series. In addition, Nintendo is releasing Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water with a new twist on the freemium model: anyone with a Wii U and a Nintendo eShop account can download the first two chapters for free, but must pay $59.99 for the rest. This is actually a pretty neat idea in practice, as it takes one back to the days of demos and what not, and gives people new to Fatal Frame the opportunity to try it for themselves. Not bad.
Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water does have several drawbacks that keep it from being the series’ best. I mentioned Nintendo’s bizarre release strategy for the title, which I will sum up by saying this much: the freemium angle is admirable, but if the weird and far more unpolished (but still fun) Devil’s Third could get a semblance of a physical release, so, too, should the fifth installment in a fairly established survival horror series. Seriously, it’s a huge game. As for the game itself, the negatives are pretty minor. There is a ton of backtracking in some areas, especially when finding lost items or taking multiple pictures, called Sync Shots, that look like one another. It seems as though these were added to increase the game length, honestly. Luckily, the game helps you get through these sections with sound cues.
In addition, Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water has some clunky controls outside of the Camera Obscura. Movement is similar to the tank controls found in the likes of early Resident Evil installments and ZombiU, but as with those, they have their place in adding to the game’s scary atmosphere. Unlike the previous games, there isn’t a mission mode, which I thought was sorely missed. The biggest negative, though, is the feeling of deja vu. While there are quite a few new ideas brought to the table, Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water relies a lot on its basics, and that might be a good thing for people new to the series, but fans might wish Koei Tecmo did more work with the new stuff. Most of the ghosts act similarly to those from earlier installments, and while the suicide angle offers a far more disturbing take on some of the series’ overarching themes, you are still taking ghosts out in shrines and other locations packed with Japanese mythology. Maybe some more modern-day places could have worked, too.
Still, Fatal Frame brings its more subtle and story-driven form of survival horror back with a vengeance. Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water isn’t the best game in the series, and its inexplicable digital-only release strategy will turn some off, but none of its flaws significantly impede on the series’ hallmarks, including the scary and beautiful storytelling, the overarching sense of despair, and the thrill of beating ghosts with a camera. Rarely do true survival horror games come out these days, and coupled with the excellent ZombiU (which has since come out on other consoles, but trust me, the Wii U version is the definitive one), Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water makes the Wii U a fantastic option for fans of the genre. And since the first two chapters are free, I’d say anyone with a Wii U ought to give this game a try. Maybe you might get sucked into the depths of Mt. Hikami, too.
Review copy was acquired by reviewer.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: PLEASE READ BEFORE COMMENTING. There have been many views of various types expressed on Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water, particularly about the alterations made for its Western release. In light of the volatile nature of this topic, as well as the fact that it has been discussed at length elsewhere both on and off this site, I ask that all commenters follow the guidelines set in this disclaimer in the comments section of my review. Comments that fall outside of respectful discourse on this game WILL NOT BE TOLERATED. These may include personal attacks, death threats, and unproductive comments that devalue my review simply because I do not provide my personal opinion on the controversy surrounding this game’s localization. Thank you for understanding, and I hope you enjoyed my review of Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water.
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